Leading article: With voters in a mood to punish, the chance of a lifetime has been lost

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There was one conspicuous winner and one conspicuous loser from Thursday's elections and the historic referendum.

And the contrasting fortunes say much about the state of politics and the mood of voters one year after the general election produced the UK's first post-war coalition government. There is elation for some, but bitter disappointment for all of us who had hoped for so long for electoral reform.

The far and away winner from the elections was Alex Salmond and his Scottish National Party. Mr Salmond commands admiration as one of the most accomplished politicians, not just north of the border, but beyond. That he led his party to an overall majority in the Scottish Parliament from almost certain defeat just a month ago is a tribute to his competitive instincts and campaigning skills. But it also reflects the positive record he was able to present to Scottish voters. In Nicola Spurling and others, he also had competent and loyal lieutenants.

In a move that might give David Cameron and the Liberal Democrats retrospective pause for thought, Mr Salmond had taken the risk of leading a minority government. To legislate, he built the alliances he needed. The challenge for the SNP now will be to preserve the consensual way of operating that Scotland appears to like, while taking advantage of its position as a majority government.

The SNP's manifesto promise to hold a referendum on Scottish independence before the end of the new Parliament could prove a bugbear here. If, as it appears at present, Scots would like just a bit more fiscal independence without going the whole hog, Mr Salmond's ambition for full sovereignty could become a liability. Then again, in today's politics, canniness, competence and strength of character count for a lot.

It could be said that it was the lack of such qualities that made the Liberal Democrats, and above all their leader, Nick Clegg, the big election losers. The referendum on the alternative vote, on which they had staked so much, looks to have been thoroughly lost. They were routed in local council elections in the north of England, being overtaken by Labour in Sheffield and losing seats across the board in Liverpool and Manchester. Mr Clegg was not completely wrong to plead in mitigation that the Liberal Democrats took all the punishment for budget cuts because the Conservatives had so few seats in the north to lose. The difficulty with this argument is that elsewhere the Conservative vote held up unexpectedly well, and voters roundly rejected the argument for AV.

The sad truth is that the Liberal Democrats were punished not just for being in government, but for being Liberal Democrats in government – perhaps for being in government at all. And the roots of their defeat – a defeat on all fronts – reflect Mr Clegg's failure to shake off the early charges of betrayal. Entering a coalition as a junior partner necessarily demands compromise. For erstwhile Liberal Democrat voters, however, Mr Clegg's compromises went too far and – unlike Mr Salmond – he was incapable of mounting a convincing defence. Backtracking on the manifesto promise to abolish student tuition fees became a particular source of resentment, if only because that one pledge had persuaded so many to vote Liberal Democrat.

***

Provisional figures show that most of the Liberal Democrats' losses were Labour gains, but not enough to bring serious cheer to Ed Miliband. Defeat in Scotland was a bitter blow – acknowledged by the Scottish Labour leader, Iain Gray, who dutifully fell on his sword. In Wales, Labour fell short of an overall majority, and in council elections elsewhere, the party did little more than recoup losses from four years before, when it was at a particularly low ebb. The evidence is less of a "bounce" from Mr Miliband's leadership than of a return to earlier loyalties by those who had flirted with the Liberal Democrats.

The drama now passes from Scotland, where Mr Salmond is safely ensconced, to Westminster, where the authority of Nick Clegg, the dynamics of the Coalition, and perhaps even its survival, are suddenly in question. Just a year after that election with an equivocal outcome, the uncertainties have suddenly become more and not less.

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